Who asked for Michael Jackson?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 12:00am

In these heady times of terrorism and unilateral this-and-that, some light relief is in order. But who requested Michael Jackson?

Not US President George W. Bush. He and his aides would dearly like to know what prompted California prosecutors to accuse the cyborg-like, king-of-pop-become-king-of-flop with child molestation when they did.

At least twice in the past fortnight, the pin-nostrilled, red-lipsticked Jackson has stolen the fire from key moments in Mr Bush's presidency. Such things cannot be taken lightly when the world's most important person is walking a tightrope to re-election day, less than a year off.

No wonder Mr Bush chose the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday - when the US comes to a standstill for family feasting - to get his own back and make a surprise, two-hour visit to American troops in Iraq. It was a prime-time television show-stopper, guaranteed not to have competition.

Strike one was on November 20, when Jackson's image transcended all else in the American media as he gave himself up to post US$3 million bail - at the same moment that Mr Bush was presenting the highlight event of the most important foreign trip of his presidency. Pictures of the singer, handcuffed and getting out of a police car, relegated symbolic images of the president - standing in solidarity beside his host and partner-in-war, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair - to a media afterthought.

Even in Britain, the event that took 18 months to plan and tens of millions of dollars to stage lost out in the popular press to Jackson.

Revelations about the singer were still swirling on Wednesday, when Mr Bush was basking in the success of Congress approving his landmark bill overhauling health care for the elderly. Days earlier, opposition Democrats had shot down another pet initiative, a US$32 billion energy bill.

To give the day a champagne glow, economic data showed the American economy was surging ahead at a rate of 8.2 per cent - if sustained, a sure-fire election winner.

Such triumphant moments come infrequently in political life, especially, it would seem of late, for Mr Bush. Opinion polls suggest continuing bad news from Iraq and stumbling efforts to contain terrorism have given him only a 50-50 chance of winning re-election, even though the Democrats have yet to agree on a candidate to run against him.

Alas, the world's mass media saw things differently. The latest salacious details of the Jackson scandal again robbed the president of the headlines and booted all that he had to crow about down-page and inside.

Perhaps fortunately for the US leader, other less-comforting news items suffered the same fate. Reports of two American soldiers in Iraq having their throats slit as they sat in their vehicle (later denied by the Pentagon) were also swamped by Jackson. A series of conferences around the world to highlight the worsening HIV/Aids pandemic disappeared off news agendas.

Few people, apart from news junkies, would know that Eduard Shevardnadze is no longer president of the former Soviet state of Georgia, or that the draft European Union constitution is in danger of not being approved. France's President Jacques Chirac and Mr Blair may as well not have met. India and Pakistan have agreed to a ceasefire along their disputed border in Kashmir, and Iran has been temporarily let off the hook over its alleged violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by the United Nations' watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency.

More universally known are details about Jackson's out-of-control debt, the layout of his Neverland ranch near Santa Barbara, his bizarre and extravagant lifestyle, the number of nose jobs he has had, his marriages, disgruntled former employees, previous allegations of child abuse and so on.

Jackson is no longer a superstar. He has not had a fortune-grossing album of songs for more than a decade and his latest offering has already been soiled by the latest claims, whether or not they are true. He is a musical has-been, a figure of fun.

But while faded pop icons should be forgotten until their next comeback hit, sexual abuse of children must be an issue given a regular public airing - and not only when someone identifiable is involved.

HIV/Aids, public health care and important matters of international relations should also be treated by the media with proper gravitas.

Media outlets pandering to popular appeal need to reassess their priorities. On that score, even Mr Bush would agree.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor peter.kammerer@scmp.com